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Why America is the BEST country in the world! A women from a modest background through her years of research helps us all enjoy the fuel that motivates our 4 wheel toys:


Woman saw sieves in crystals

Chemist who harnessed molecular filtering properties will join inventors hall

By Paula Schleis

Beacon Journal staff writer

Imagine looking into a tiny crystal and seeing in it the ability to make gasoline cleaner, water purer and natural gas safer.

That's the first step toward understanding the simple power of a zeolite -- and the genius of chemist Edith Flanigen.

For a couple of centuries, zeolite crystals had intrigued scientists because they contain tiny channels and cavities inside that act like a sieve.

Where a filter stops larger particles and allows smaller ones to pass through, a sieve sends through larger particles while trapping smaller molecules in its complex web.

The woman who would learn how to make all kinds of zeolites in a lab and harness their unique properties was born in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1929.

Flanigen's mom was a homemaker and her dad was in the lumber business, causing many to wonder how their three daughters became scientists.

When Edith graduated from college and took a job at Union Carbide Corp. in 1952 as a chemist researcher, her sister Joan was already there. Two years later, her sister Jane would join them.

The personnel head at the Tonawanda, N.Y., lab was so fascinated, he used to give them psychological tests, thinking he might turn up some strange trait that had turned three sisters into chemists.

In time, Joan and Jane left the field to marry and raise families, but destiny pulled Edith along.

In the 1970s, she was put in charge of a team whose job was to produce synthetic zeolite.

A decade later, she and her colleagues had exhausted the periodic table, learning how to create molecular sieves from all sorts of chemicals.

Their landmark work resulted in 200 compositions that could do everything from sifting molecules from complex mixtures to acting as a catalyst, accelerating chemical reactions.

Arguably the most significant of these discoveries was ``zeolite Y'' -- a sieve that could take the crude oil found in earth and break it down into its parts. It separated the part that is turned into gasoline in a way that was cleaner and safer than any previous refining method.

Today, other sieves are used to purify water and remove moisture from refrigerator lines and auto air conditioners so they don't freeze.

They dry and purify natural gas for the home, are used to clean up nuclear waste sites (including Three Mile Island and Chernobyl) and are used to make household detergents more environmentally friendly.

They are used in dual-pane windows to help save energy and prevent fogging, and have found their way into personal hygiene products for their ability to absorb odors.

Today, molecular sieves are a billion-dollar industry, with 10,000 chemists and engineers working in the field.

Flanigen retired in 1994, after 42 years at Union Carbide and more than 100 patents to her name.

What she saw in her crystal ball continues to serve the world.
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